Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Homecoming: South Commons 1969
In 1969, one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and when riots erupted in parts of the inner city, my husband and I and our two young daughters moved from suburban Glenview to South Commons, a 30-acre, urban renewal complex at 28th St. and Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s Near South Side.
Friends and relatives called us crazy, but that move changed me. The 31-year-old unhappy housewife I was back then turned into a newspaper editor, musical theatre producer, and community activist. Almost overnight, I shed bored and lonely and donned euphoria.
I got to thinking about the 10 years I spent in South Commons after I had written my Aug. 31 post declaring the years described in my memoir, "The Division Street Princess,"as the most influential in my life. While the impact of my childhood above the store still holds true, South Commons is the place I hold nearest my heart -- the answer to all my dreams.
In many ways, the move to South Commons was a homecoming because we had previously lived nearby at Prairie Shores, when my husband was a resident at Michael Reese Hospital. But once he completed his tour, a job at an Arlington Heights hospital and the natural path of a Jewish doctor and his young family, prompted a move to a tract housing development more than 20 miles from the city.
For many – especially my mother – our suburban three-bedroom raised ranch with yard and attached garage on a cul-de-sac ringed with skinny baby trees, was heaven. For me, it was not. I felt fish-out-of-water, unable to connect to neighbors who were my age, religion, and background. I missed the city and would regularly sit on a bus for 1-1/2 hours to reach State and Madison.
Fortunately, my husband switched medical specialties and won a residency in Chicago that required a move back. When I learned about South Commons, a “new town” just a few blocks from our old Prairie Shores apartment, that aimed to integrate races, incomes, and ages in a mix of for-sale townhouses and rental low-, mid-, and high-rise buildings, I wanted in.
From my first step into the South Commons community center, where some boisterous activity was underway, I felt at home. As soon as moving boxes were unpacked, I plunged in, becoming a volunteer for Rev. Ed Weisheimer, a Disciples of Christ minister who led the ecumenical South Commons Church and organized community activities.
On a Selectric typewriter, I tapped out weekly issues of the Commons Commentary, rolled dotted pages onto a mimeograph machine, and delivered copies that had been piled onto a red Flyer wagon, to an eager audience of readers. I was a writer, editor, and publisher – skills unknown to me that blossomed freely in South Commons’ fertile soil.
I believe my family thrived, too. My husband played leads in The Sorcerer, Pirates of Penzance, Carousel, and other musicals produced by our amateur theatre group; and he flourished in his medical career. At times, though, I imagine he longed for the housewife he had married only nine years earlier. But she had disappeared, and in her place was a woman barely recognizable to the two of us.
Our daughters Faith and Jill caught the show biz bug, too, while acting in the chorus of these musicals and in rag-tag productions they created in our courtyard playground. (You can read Jill’s take on South Commons in her book of essays, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.)
Local and national publications put our neighborhood under a microscope: The Chicago Daily News claimed, “South Commons meets big test” (Oct. 17, 1969). The Christian Science Monitor said, “The experimental ‘new town’ in Chicago’s South Side is a model for cities seeking to reverse urban decay.” (April 23, 1971). The Chicago Daily News praised, “the integrated way of life in South Commons” (Sept. 29, 1972), and The Chicago Sun-Times described, “A sense of community at South Commons” (Sept. 10, 1972).
Much later, I was gratified to learn that along with my own family, and the journalists who penned those stories, other South Commons’ residents praised the community’s positive impact. In 2002, Tony Brooks, (you can read his reporting in the Aug. 4 archive of Chicago Sports Review) a young black man who had lived in a South Commons rental apartment in the 1970s, organized a reunion he targeted “to the kids who grew up in one of the best neighborhoods Chicago has to offer.” Although I was decades older than Tony and his peers, I attended the gathering and listened as Tony and his old South Commons friends shared my view that our experience had been a blessing.
Some former residents, who had moved out of town and missed the reunion (including my daughters) sent e-mails relating their memories. Mardi Teale, one of my best South Commons friends, who worked on the Commons Commentary, and with her husband, Jim, painted scenery or designed costumes for the musical theatre troupe, wrote from Arizona: “The best part of life there was the community spirit – people of all ages and ethnicity living, working and playing together. Of all the places we’ve lived, South Commons provides the best memories of all.”
My family remained in South Commons until 1979, long after many of our neighbors had left, after Faith and Jill were nearly the last white children in the K-6 branch of Drake elementary, after the early dream of integration had faded. Some of the middle-class black and white families left because they refused to send their children to “big Drake” for 7th and 8th grades where they would mix with the kids of nearby public housing. Others moved for typical reasons: because they needed more or less space than their South Commons residences provided, for affordable suburban homes, or for job opportunities elsewhere.
Forever touched by my South Commons experience and encouraged by its developer Daniel Levin and architect Ezra Gordon, I entered the very first Masters of Urban Planning Program at the University of Illinois Chicago. I wanted to learn what had happened to the noble experiment. What worked, what failed? I interviewed parents who had welcomed social integration for themselves, but rebelled at using their children as laboratory subjects in the public schools. Their stories form the basis of my master’s thesis.
Today, the Near South Side is bursting with new real estate and a mix of residents, and South Commons remains a centerpiece. My former homestead is all grown up now, no longer a “social experiment,” simply a lushly landscaped oasis in the city, 2-1/2 miles from Chicago’s downtown.
The dreams of wild-eyed urban pioneers -- like Tony Brooks, Mardi Teale, me, and so many others – are tucked in scrapbooks and photo albums. But every so often, especially when I hear old ‘70s tunes, like this one from Barry White, I go right back to those very special days:
The first, the last, my everything
And the answer to all my dreams
You're my sun, my moon, my guiding star
My kind of wonderful, that's what you are
I know there's only, only one like you
There's no way they could have made two
You're all I'm living for
Your love I'll keep for evermore
You're the first, you’re the last, my everything
No.1. From Chicago Sunday Sun-Times, Midwest Magazine, June 28, 1970.
No. 2. Our South Commons townhouse.
No. 3. An issue of the Commons Commentary, Feb. 16, 1972.
No. 4. From The Herald newspaper, April 25, 1973.
No. 5. South Commons’ kids in the courtyard. Jill at the drum, and Faith to her right.
No. 6. Friends and neighbors, from left to right: Friends Linda, Faith, Vaso, Jill, and Gina.
No. 7. From Lakefront Outlook, May 1, 2002.